45 at 33: Prince’s Batdance and the Michael Jackson collaboration that never was

In terms of cultural legacy, the so-called Second Summer Of Love might not be able to compete with its predecessor of two decades prior when I happened to come into the world – Woodstock, Stonewall and, er, Bryan Adams will do that – but 33 long years later, some of us are still feeling its impact.

Back in the summer of ’89, rave culture had exploded all over Britain. This was, of course, when “E’s” were good, the Hacienda was great, and its owners New Order and their dance pop compatriots the Pet Shop Boys had built on the happy valley acid house craze to produce some of the period’s most era-defining music. 

Though history is rarely that neat, and the final summer of the 1980s also saw the slow fade of many of the decade’s icons: this was a time when, thanks to poll tax riots and an increasingly hostile attitude towards Europe, the wheels of the Thatcher project were starting to seize up; David Bowie’s Tin Machine project looked equally rusty before it had even been revved up, and hilariously if uncomfortably closer to home, the Pretenders formidable frontwoman Chrissie Hynde claimed at a Greenpeace press conference in June that she once firebombed a McDonalds, and, no she wasn’t joking. 

Neither was this caption writer, sadly. Filmed a few minutes from where my parents still live.

As Jack Nicholson himself might say, Oh, I got a live one here! (Cue chuckling.)

Because the following day our local branch in Central Milton Keynes shopping centre was unceremoniously firebombed, and the fast food chain were quick to threaten the militant veggie with legal action unless she withdrew her inflammatory remarks and promised never to say them again.

We, of course, thought it was hysterical. And in an example of divine symmetry, the MK Maccas was across the road from The Point, the UK’s first multiplex cinema where three weeks later I caught a preview screening of Tim Burton’s Batman, his big screen retooling of the Gotham City vigilante that happened to be one of my favourite childhood telly programmes*. The MK complex would often host premieres and previews, especially if there was a link between the film and the town (and some of Batman was certainly shot on location in the area — simultaneously with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade  and at nearby Pinewood).

Despite it coming across at times like a dark and doomy version of Superman, it swiftly become the highest-grossing movie of 1989.

This is the story of its song, an eighties oddity for sure, because only Prince had the brass neck to conjure up one of the weirdest chart-toppers of the decade and bag one of the biggest hits of his career. Batdance isn’t the easiest song to digest — hell, it’s barely even a song at all — but its genius lies in the madness. Me being me, I thought it was fantastic, different and totally out there. It even has the dubious honour of being the only piece of music I can vividly remember being played at my 20th birthday party the month of its release. Yes, OK, to the surprise of no one I got a leettle bit drunk.

“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

I always ask that of all my prey

I just like the sound of it”

Who’s the first and most prominent voice of doom you hear on Prince’s Batdance? It’s no coincidence that it’s not actually music’s most celebrated self-contained creative but the old devil Joker himself, Jack Nicholson, who played no small part in bringing the purple one into the DC comic book series’ universe, for the anticipated big screen rendering of Gotham City’s famed anti-hero, 1989’s Batman, with Michael Keaton in the title role.

After apparently coming under pressure to have some form of pop music tie-in to help promote his big-budget studio franchise debut, director Tim Burton took soundings from fellow Prince admirer Nicholson, and the initial somewhat modest idea was to include two catalogue pieces by the pint-sized polymath, and initial workprint edits featured 1999 and the Purple Rain deep cut Baby I’m A Star as placeholders in two key Joker sequences.

Legend has it that Nicholson felt the songs worked so well that he urged Burton to bring Prince onboard for further involvement with the caped crusader. The singer, naturally, was thrilled since he taught himself how to play Neal Hefti’s “Batman Theme” on the piano as a child. Two decades later, Batdance would take its classic hook and transport it to the 1980s, coating the song in a juddery experimental groove supplemented with scattergun soundbites from the movie.

Whether he was inspired by watching the movie get made, eager to help another singular artist, or feeling internal or external pressure to reverse the growing sales decline of recent albums including the just-released Lovesexy, the normally control-minded Prince not only said yes, he also happily took creative feedback from Burton. “There was so much pressure on [him]” the Minnesota marvel told Rolling Stone in 1990, “that for the whole picture, I just said, ‘Yes, Mr. Burton, what would you like?’” 

Naturally and perhaps even more problematically for Burton, that meant an over-delivery of sorts. After being inspired by an early 1988 visit to the film set at England’s Pinewood Studios (where the production took over so many of the location’s soundstages that its usual tenant, 007 James Bond himself, was forced to shoot elsewhere), Prince — prolific being his middle name — returned to his musical Batcave at Paisley Park in Minneapolis and crafted not two but nine new tracks in just three weeks. When Burton rejected 200 Balloons, the song intended to take the place of Baby, I’m a Star in the Joker’s parade scene (you can guess by as much just from the title, which was quite literally about what was happening in the scene), its author promptly wrote another, Trust, which made the final cut.

“I’ve seen the future and it works,” Prince sings on opening track The Future. But then he was always an artist looking forward, even naming an album 1999 down below space in 1982. Batman would be Prince’s eleventh LP and third bona fide motion picture soundtrack after Purple Rain and Parade for Under The Cherry Moon. And with each of the featured tracks inspired by the film’s main characters, it was something of a trailblazing move that subsequently found the alignment of superhero movies with hit songs becoming commonplace. Good, old-fashioned corporate synergy. Duh.

In a further mass marketing twist, the project was originally earmarked as a collaboration with an arch rival on a competing major label. Can you imagine the two kings of ’80s pop who both also flirted with movie stardom making an entire LP together? And that record is a soundtrack to a blockbuster Batman movie?

It almost happened. During a casual interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2001, Prince looked back on the Batman episode and revealed that the soundtrack was indeed intended as a collaboration between himself and the gloved one they called MJ: 

“Did you know that the album was supposed to be a duet between Michael Jackson and me? He as Batman, me as the Joker?” 

In practice, that would have meant Prince playing the funkier songs for the villains and wacko Jacko would have been responsible for performing the ballads for the heroes, such as the slushball The Arms Of Orion, which would be eventually voiced by For Your Eyes Only singer Sheena Easton.

To the disappointment of pop culture enthusiasts everywhere, the intriguing duet double-bubble never came to fruition. Though the schizophrenic nature of the project goes some way to deciphering Gemini, Prince’s goofy alter-ego of the wildly entertaining Batdance and Partyman video promos, and whose 50/50 aesthetics resembled Batman villain Two-Face — dressing as Prince/Batman on his right half of the body and the Joker on his left. However, if you look past the Batmania, it represents how the human soul is a spiritual battlefield when good and evil try to occupy the same space.

Record label contractual shenanigans might have had something to do with the non-event too, considering Jackson was in a long-term recording agreement with CBS/Epic and the Prince catalogue was a slave to the rhythm of the Warners stable, who also controlled the rights to the movie franchise. MJ probably didn’t need Batman as much as Prince anyhow, and for much of 1988 into early ’89 was ensconced on his mammoth Bad outing, his first solo tour, amazingly. A similar duet project with George Michael was also nixed during this period, but at the behest of Yog rather than the “utter nutter” MJ.

With over 11 million copies sold worldwide, it’s easy to dismiss Batman as a cynical cash grab. However, the record’s biggest singles prove nobody could predict what Prince would do next.

Perhaps it’s not something that’s aged terribly well, but lest we forget the project’s lead 45 did provide the purple one with his fourth and penultimate American No.1 single, deposing Martina’s Toy Soldiers on August 5, 1989. It had already done similar business in the UK the week of the summer solstice, where it crashed in to the chart in third place and ended up a solid No.2 the day before I turned twenty, behind Soul II Soul’s immovable Back To Life. 

Enter the unconventionally bonkers Batdance.

Curiously, not only did Batdance instantly become and remains the Prince single with the highest chart entry in Britain but it’s still his joint second highest charting 45 there. His only such chart-topper on Albion shores wasn’t until the non-Warners release of The Most Beautiful Girl In The World in 1994, tying with the 1985 reissue of 1999 c/w Little Red Corvette — my first ever Prince purchase, natch.

It’s a period piece, for sure, which wouldn’t have worked without the context of, and excitement for, the upcoming movie. That this hard-edged and nearly tuneless theme went to No.1 anywhere in the world is certainly an indication of the pop-cult mania surrounding Burton’s Batman reboot, but the perversity of its major hit status is more explainable when you remember that the singles charts of the late eighties were becoming loaded with dance tracks that weren’t really songs or even bona-fide instrumentals, but ostensibly sonic collages littered with samples and soundbites, perhaps augmented with a hint of a chorus if we were lucky, lucky, lucky. 

In that experimental non-linear vein, think Pump Up The Volume, Theme from S-Express, or going back earlier still, to Queen’s bombastic Flash Gordon ditty. Like the Flash 45, Prince’s piece was the abstract theme to a superhero movie. However, Batdance existed in an age where the idea of dialogue samples and quirky chord voicings applied to minimal, looping backdrops had become commonplace (everybody in da house!).

Today, Batdance’s extensive sampling feels endearingly primitive. But where it manages to be infinitely stranger than any of the above is by turning into an almost completely different track at one point, and not keeping any component running too long. Indeed, the finished article was a furious réchauffé of several leftover songs and ideas Prince was working on at the time. 

Making liberal use of the achingly of the moment Fairlight synthesizer, the net result is a somewhat forbidding, scatter-brained musical Frankenstein with no visible stitches or scars. Everything is incorporated: elements of pop, hip hop, stadium rock and funk are chopped-up and dominated by robotic boom-chak drums and, in place of much supporting music, myriad samples samples, samples and more samples (not just from Batman but tantalising tasters of still unreleased and unrelated Prince tracks).

The whole shebang is underpinned by a chaotic dance floor adrenaline that shifts from one intentionally disjointed musical setting to the next, while sketching out the basic plot and conflicts of the movie. Then it changes gears into a slinky, seductive groove of a middle section and a highly hysterical guitar solo that was all kinds of Hendrix-y incendiary before reverting back for its abrupt conclusion. 

Ultimately, Batdance and the wider Batman cross-pollination project was something Prince had never done before, or would ever do again. The problem may have been that Prince only really thrives in his own little pocket universe, and coming up with musical accompaniment for somebody else’s vision was never gonna be his strong point. Tim Burton ended up barely using the songs in the movie, save parts of Partyman and Trust.

A half-decade later, he scrawled the word “slave” on his face to protest the WB renewal contract he gleefully signed in 1991, a deal reportedly worth more than $100 million dollars. Rodgers Nelson would remain a powerful live draw for the rest of his life, eventually returning to Warner Brothers two years before his death. In one final dance with the devil, Prince reportedly exchanged participation in a Purple Rain revisit for the return of his contentious master tapes. 

As the man once said, “If you don’t own your masters, you master owns you.” As premature and tragic as his death was, Prince died a free man and left the devil in the dust.

Don’t stop dancin’.

Steve Pafford 

*Prince was roughly 8-year-sold when the caped crusader’s corn run amok premiered on American television in 1966 and 10 when the series finale aired. That put him in the perfect age bracket for Batman and Robin’s romps, with its camp, candy-coloured sets, dramatic “Pow!” boxes and hooky, energetic music. Such was its popularity — Batman is often referred to as one of three big “Bs” to have made maximum impact during the sixties, the other two being The Beatles and Bond, James Bond — that many top Hollywood names had guest roles on the show. Frank Sinatra, Natalie Wood and Cary Grant were fans, but the producers ABC were never able to come up with the right roles for any of them.

In Britain, I would have been slightly younger when glued to ITV’s reruns in the mid 1970s, probably with my miniature Batmobile by my side while wearing my silver Bat-ring, I kid you not. Scandalous much?

I remember staying with my paternal grandparents in Crickewood for the regulation two weeks out of the six school summer holidays in London, and as a brightly enthusiastic seven year-old asking my grandmother a pertinent question as the latest episode of Batman came to its conclusion in the front room:

“Do you watch Batman when I’m not here?”

“NO, Steven! Don’t be silly!”

Too young to realise just how ironic this imaginative send-up of the goodies-versus-the-baddies theme Batman actually was, I couldn’t understand the force of her response and it took some time before the penny dropped that it would have been an insult to her intelligence. I was clueless that there was such things as programmes for adults and programmes for children, and said elders only watch the ‘kid’s stuff’ to keep the little ones company rather than any genuine interest.

Doctor Who and Planet Of The Apes were my other confirmed viewing favourites of my first full decade, and my mother only admitted to me when the Timelord made his spectacular return on the BBC in 2005 that she only watched it back in the day because I liked it. Of course, both programmes have been brought back for millennial viewing pleasure, but Burton’s Batman got there first

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